Kit Teaches Children with Special Needs About Oral Health

Richard Gawel


From an early age, children need to learn about proper dental care so they can establish healthy habits that they will practice for the rest of their lives. However, good oral hygiene is a particular challenge for children with intellectual disabilities. That’s why America’s ToothFairy has adapted its popular educational kit to meet their educational needs.

“Oral health has been identified as the number-one unmet health need for children with special needs,” said Fern Ingber, president and CEO of America’s ToothFairy. “We really want to make sure we reach as many children and caregivers as possible.”

The update includes a hands-on and 2-sided magnetic display board; a giant toothbrush; and revised lessons on brushing, flossing, nutrition, handwashing, germ transmission, and other topics. It recommends techniques and modifications to make daily oral health routines more comfortable.

“We carefully adapted the lessons to address sensory issues and physical challenges,” said Ingber.

In July and August, America’s ToothFairy demonstrated the kit for healthcare providers, educational institutions, and other relevant organizations at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. According to Ingber, the kit was very well received.

“Everyone has been very receptive,” she said. “They really love our interactive kit because they understand that oral health is a major issue and this is a tool that, frankly, kids love. They find it interesting. They find it memorable.”

Practitioners, researchers, and students associated with the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD) were introduced to the kit at their annual meeting. Student chapters of the AADMD will use the kit in their educational outreach programs and become participants in Students United with America’s ToothFairy.

“We also work with a terrific group called Health Occupations Students of America—Future Health Professionals. It has 4,600 chapters and 180,000 students. These are future health professionals across a wide spectrum of health disciplines,” said Ingber. “We are working with these organizations to integrate oral health into their conversations and make sure that they know that we have these special modules available to help them in better serving all children.”

The America’s ToothFairy Scientific Advisory Board, which comprises dentists, hygienists, nurses, and academics with experience in working with children, developed the kit. These advisors include Steven P. Perlman, DDS, professor of pediatric dentistry at the Boston University School of Dental Medicine.

“Dr. Perlman started the Healthy Athletes Special Smiles Program of the Special Olympics,” said Ingber. “Helping young children and families with intellectual disabilities has become a driving passion for him as well as his vocation. We are very proud that he serves as a member of our Scientific Advisory Board and has facilitated our growing partnership with Special Olympics.”

A range of health professionals reviewed the lessons. Input was also gathered from dentists and physicians who devote much if not all of their practices to children with special needs.

In addition to providing the ToothFairy 101 Community Education Kit to its network of partners, including the National Association of School Nurses, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the US Department of Agriculture, and the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Foundation, America’s ToothFairy is making it available to everyone engaged in oral health promotion.

“We are working with all of these organizations as distribution points to get the information out and drive positive health behaviors for children,” Ingber said.

Multiple partnerships are necessary to achieve widespread use and education among the more than 6.5 million people in the United Sates with intellectual disabilities. Families of children with special needs often face significant challenges in accessing oral care, including finding a dentist with experience in treating patients with special needs—which also motivates the organization to reach out to professional societies.

“It is important for more and more practitioners to be comfortable treating children with intellectual disabilities,” Ingber said. “Then we need to make sure we can connect these children with practitioners who will provide care.”

America’s ToothFairy designed its Practice of Distinction program to support dentists with a turnkey marketing program that helps them attract patients and engage their community in improving oral health. Members receive access to co-branded materials for their practices.

Meanwhile, America’s ToothFairy is taking the kit international by providing it to mission groups serving at-risk children around the globe and translating it into Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and other languages. It has even been used in India, according to Ingber.

“We hope to see more and more mission groups not only providing dental care, but also offering education and helping train someone from the village or the community to continually help educate,” Ingber said, adding that you don’t have to be a dentist, hygienist, or even a nurse or teacher to conduct lessons with the kit. “This kit becomes a great leave-behind.”

The kit is just one example of the educational tools that America’s ToothFairy offers. For example, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts can earn patches related to dental activities. The #MySmileMatters youth movement engages middle school and high school students in oral health leadership and advocacy.

Members of the free Kids Club receive personalized monthly emails from the Tooth Fairy featuring activities that promote better oral care. America’s ToothFairy wants to dive deeper into the digital realm, too, with aspirations for developing an app.

“We would love to identify angels that would like to work with us to support the development of some great apps,” Ingber said. “We certainly have the content, we have the programs, all ready to go to create a great app that could be co-branded.”

But the best oral care starts with prevention. While oral health ranks high as an unmet healthcare need in surveys of families of children with special needs, Ingber said, it is much easier to continue good oral health habits than it is to find care for a child who has serious tooth decay or other significant, painful issues. And the kit teaches those habits.

“When you show sticky and nonsticky foods to kids, that’s something they remember. When they see a visual of what happens if they don’t wear a mouthguard, it’s memorable. When they can see how permanent teeth are already sitting in the gums, sitting on top of the deciduous baby teeth and ready to come down, they can really understand why baby teeth are so important, how decay can spread,” Ingber said. “That’s why this kit is so effective.”

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